An art dealer’s detective work leads to a unique painting – and a surprise
The Second World War was the deadliest in human history. So many died it is impossible give accurate figures. Some estimate that three per cent of the world’s population was lost – somewhere between 60 and 85 million people. Whatever the correct number, civilian deaths, through deliberate murder and genocide or as collateral casualties, were twice as high as military.
About 43,000 civilians were killed by bombs that fell in the Blitz in 1940 and 1941, when my diarist June S. was driving her ambulance in Chelsea, and a further 17,000 in the period to 1945, with half of all those deaths taking place in London. Eight hundred and seventy-six people were killed in Chelsea. Per capita, only Bermondsey and Westminster suffered more.
Of my list of around 180 names of LCC voluntary ambulance drivers and attendants in Chelsea (taken from the 1939 Register and from June S.’s wartime diaries) I have so far found three who died as a direct result of war. Susan Otto, an actress, and Eleanor Foxall, a professional ambulance driver, both died in the London Blitz while off duty. This week I discovered that Sybil Gilliat-Smith died after the SS City of Benares was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Each of these death provoked an intense, and unexpected, feeling of immense sadness in me. As a historian I should keep my emotions in check but as a human being I couldn’t help but empathise with the awful suffering of their families. Sybil was 25 when she died, the same age as my youngest daughter.
With Sybil on the City of Benares were 196 civilians including 90 children, ‘seavacuees’ heading for Canada under the auspices of CORB (Children of the Overseas Reception Board), which had been set up three months earlier to offer temporary emigration to children who lived in areas that were especially vulnerable to air attack. The children were cared for by guardians, ten women and three men, among them Sybil, an artist and art teacher. She had also been an auxiliary ambulance driver or possibly an attendant, most probably working at AS22, a 10-minute walk from her flat. This was the station June S. was assigned to after she enrolled in June 1940. We do not know whether the two women, who were both in their mid-20s, were acquainted. Tantalisingly, June, after only two weeks in the ambulance service, wrote that she went to enquire about the possibility of accompanying children to Canada. Had she heard about Sybil and her imminent voyage and taken herself off to CORB’s headquarters in Berkeley Square?
June did not go to Canada. CORB was as overwhelmed with applicants for volunteer guardians as it was for children’s places on board, and could afford to pick and choose. Sybil’s nine women colleagues on the Benares were all either qualified medics or teachers (the men were two ordained priests and a divinity student). June, who had a Red Cross Certificate but no professional experience with children, would probably not have met the entry requirements.
In July and August 1940, London was tense and watchful, rife with rumours of invasion and imminent attacks on civilians, but despite the Battle of Britain being fought tooth and nail in the skies above the Home Counties there was little aerial action over London. There were air raid warnings of course, but these generally came to nothing. People were becoming blasé.
In Chelsea, June S. kept calm and carried on with her normal life. After her shifts she enjoyed carefree nights in the West End with her boyfriend and her wide circle of friends, or spent her off-shift days playing tennis in Roehampton or visiting her parents in Hertfordshire. At ambulance station 22 she made friends with her colleagues, scrubbed out and serviced her vehicle, walked around Hyde Park with a loudhailer trying to drum up recruits for the service (it was chronically under-subscribed), practised drill and went to lectures – but there were few call-outs and she became bored and dissatisfied.
Somewhere between January and early September, when she left on the Benares, during the Phoney War or more likely after the fall of France when the enemy was 20 miles across the Channel, Sybil Gilliat-Smith painted this remarkable work. I love its deceptively simple, almost naïve style. In the gloom of a drizzly dusk, the streets of Chelsea are deserted. High up in the grey clouds, the huge barrage balloons, flown to baffle enemy aircraft, look tiny. In the bottom left corner, a lone woman in blue overalls and ‘tin’ hat, her gas mask on her shoulder turns the corner by a sign to the Air Raid Shelter. The title is ‘ARP warden on patrol in Chelsea, 1940’ but the woman could easily have been an ambulance worker on her way to her station.
An artefact like this painting is gold-dust to me. After I do the basics on ‘my’ ambulance workers – date of birth and death, immediate family, social class – I usually turn to The British Newspaper Archive, The Times Archive and Google for more information. As I have said elsewhere, this research is much easier when the subject has an unusual name or comes from a prominent or upper-class family. Sybil was a tick in both categories.
From those usual sources I discovered that Sybil was born in 1915 in Varna, Bulgaria, the daughter of Bernard Joseph Leo Esquier Gilliat-Smith (1883-1973), a diplomat, and Polish-born Ida Voika Mary Szymonski-Lubicz (1892-1982). She had an older sister Evelyn Honor Lucille (1912-1998), who was born in Beirut. When Sybil died, her father was Consul-General in New Orleans. All of this data indicates that the family was internationally connected, established and well-off.
It is sometimes not possible to add flesh to the bones of biographical information. I know nothing of Sybil’s early life, where she went to school or if she went to art college. A brief glimpse of Sybil and her sister emerged from The Times obituary of Jewish refugee Gerald Ralph Graham (1918-2017), who was a pioneering paediatric cardiologist in later life. In 1936, when the Gilliat-Smiths met him, he was visiting London from Berlin. Sybil and Evelyn patiently helped him practise his English, teaching him an impeccable accent which, he said, stood him in good stead in his medical career (“Somebody said to me not very long ago that without my accent I would never have got anywhere near Great Ormond Street,” he recalled in his memoir).
The only other place I found Sybil was in the issue of the society magazine The Bystander dated four days before war was declared. She stands in the shallow waters of the Riviera, squinting slightly in the sun, cigarette in hand, looking somewhat unconvinced that the photograph is really necessary.
On 10 September Sybil was on her way to Liverpool to join the other Benares guardians for a two-day induction before the ship sailed to Canada. By now the anxious wait for enemy air raids was over – they had started in London on Saturday 7 September. June S. described seeing “hundreds of planes in the sky not bigger than pinpricks” heading for the Docks and the East End. No bombs fell on Chelsea. “There were no calls for the ambulances,” wrote June, “but no doubt the danger must have been immense elsewhere.”
Everything changed the next day, when a flat-roofed street shelter in Beaufort Street, which runs parallel to Danvers Street, was devastated by a direct hit. Sybil must have been aware of it and may have felt huge relief not to be involved in the grisly rescue or in the glass-roofed ambulance station. Of course she knew that her voyage across the Atlantic would not without risk especially from U-boats. On 2 July 1940 the SS Arandora Star, a cruise ship repurposed as a troopship, was assigned the task of transporting Italian and German civilians among a small number of prisoners of war to Canada, was sunk by a U-boat; over 800 people died.
On 13 September the Benares left Liverpool in convoy. On the fourth night at sea, 600 miles from land, at about 10pm, with gale-force winds, storms, rain and hail besetting her and just after Sybil and her colleagues had put the children to bed below, the commander of U-48, Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Bleichrodt, ordered two torpedoes to be fired. They missed but a third found its mark, penetrating the ship’s hull and exploding. Captain Landles Nicoll gave the order to abandon ship and children, escorts and passengers started boarding the lifeboats.
“Some of the children were killed in the explosion,” recalled Derek Bech, one of the child survivors, “some were trapped in their cabins, and the rest died when the lifeboats were launched incorrectly and children were just tipped into the sea.”
This is what happened to Sybil. Her lifeboat was suddenly thrown lopsided, and she and the other occupants, including five children from the same family, were jettisoned into the sea. The City of Benares sank at around 11pm, stern first, its emergency lights still blazing.
HMS Hurricane picked up 105 people a day later but missed one of the lifeboats, containing six boys and 40 adults, which drifted for eight days through three gales and until it was spotted from the air and rescued by HMS Anthony. Fifty-one passengers and 122 crew were lost, of which 101 were Indian sailors, known as ‘lascars’ (whose presence in this tragedy is generally overlooked). In addition, of the 90 children who had been aboard, 77 died in the sinking.
U-48 returned to base in France. The crew reportedly wept when they heard that they had sunk a ship full of children.
The sinking of the Benares ended ‘seavacuation’ abruptly and completely. CORB had sent 2,664 children to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Canada. At its height, it employed over 620 staff. Although the organisation technically continued to exist for the next four years, no more ‘seavacuations’ took place.
Nine days after the loss of the Benares, Stephen King-Hall (1893-1966), the National Labour MP for Ormskirk, wrote a personal tribute to Sybil, published in The Times: “She was… possessed of a keen intelligence and range of knowledge remarkable in a girl of her years… she made countless friends in every class of society… She was intensely interested in human beings and passionately attached to fundamental liberal principles.” She felt that the war was a crusade “on behalf of everything which mattered most to her in life”, he wrote. She was delighted to have been chosen to accompany the children across the Atlantic.
King-Hall’s words about Sybil brought me back to the painting, which I had found, via Google, in Holding the Line: The Art of the War Years 1939-45 (2015), one of the many World War Two-focused monographs published by Sim Fine Art, and particularly to the lone, vulnerable ARP figure in it. In the silent street, its residents confined unseen in their homes, she is the only human with agency. It is haunting, melancholy even, but also hopeful. The ARP woman is going about her duty. Her impetus comes from within. No wonder, despite its filthy state and lack of provenance, the painting caught the eye of art dealer Andrew Sim.
The signature was almost completely obscured. “Even when cleaned, it was almost impossible to decipher,” he told me. “Her name is not the most obvious…” Through a process of “endless” trial and error he managed to crack it. “It was magical the way her story unfolded. The story of the Benares is so unbearably sad, as was her death in particular. It made the discovery of this tantalising glimpse into her physical world and her imagination so exciting – as was the discovery of her extant family and the sale of the picture to them. Her sister was in the SOE, incidentally – what a family.”
One mystery remained: the location in Chelsea of the street in the painting. Sybil lived in Park Walk and I thought the answer would probably lie in that neighbourhood. Hours of navigating Google street view did not produce a match but when I put the question to Twitter, its host of experts came up with the solution almost immediately. Daniel Williamson (@spannerdan2) identified the building on the left as Crosby Hall, a 15th-century structure moved brick-by-brick to Chelsea in 1910. The side of the building in Sybil’s painting is now obscured by a red-brick addition fronting Cheyne Walk, which was added in the late 20th century.
It was a satisfying way to end the research (at least for now – if you have more information, please contact me) but does not assuage the sadness I felt when I learnt that another of ‘my’ ambulance people died through war. The loss of kind, sensitive, talented Sybil feels like an incalculable deficit. There is no knowing what she, and all the other millions of souls who perished needlessly, would have brought the world .
Sybil’s sister Evelyn worked as Secretary to the London office of the Scandinavian Section of Section D, whose aim was to prepare for underground warfare against the Nazis using a combination of sabotage, black propaganda and political warfare, and later worked for SOE.
After the war the Allies tried Bleichrodt for sinking the ship with the full knowledge that it had been transporting evacuees. He asserted that there was no way that he or the crew of the submarine could have known who was on board. The ship was not marked as being an evacuation transport. He was acquitted.
Stephen King-Hall. ‘Miss S. Gilliat-Smith’, The Times, 26 Sep, 1940, 7G.
Tony Bridgland (2001). Waves of Hate: Naval Atrocities of the Second World War. Pen & Sword.
Deborah Heiligman (2019). Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of ‘The Children’s Ship’. Henry Holt & Company.
Roger Kershaw, Remembering the City of Benares Tragedy. National Archives Blog, 17 Sep 2015.
Stephen Moss, Benares tragedy: ‘All I can remember were the screams and cries for help’. The Guardian, 15 Sep 2010.
‘Dr Gerald Graham: Great Ormond Street pioneer once caught up in the communist “witch-hunt”.’ The Times, 4 Feb 2017.
The Story of Child Evacuee Beryl Myatt and the SInking of the SS City of Benares. Imperial War Museum